Mission Reinvention: Food Businesses Buck Recession

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A few months ago I began leading tours for Edible Excursions (run by epicurean concierge Lisa Rogovin) around North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, which includes visits to the Cheeseboard Collective, photo ops in front of Chez Panisse, and the occasional celebrity sighting (or what counts as celebrity in that town--don't blink but there's Michael Lewis buying pie with one of his kids.)

Many participants ask about other tours the company offers, which I don't lead, but I realized pretty quickly I needed to know what was on the menu so I could share the details with potential repeat customers.

So I recently shadowed the Taste the Mission tour (arguable the real Ghetto Gourmet these days) and what struck me on that food store and restaurant jaunt, as we spent three hours hoofing around the 'hood, was the different business models employed by the people in the kitchens trying to survive--or even thrive--during recessionary times.

What I came away with from that afternoon (aside from an impressive food baby after hearty sampling at nine spots) is a bit of a metaphor for life--there's no right way to do it, different strategies work for different people, love what you do, work hard, and the rest will follow.

Below, a trio of approaches to ride out the recession.


Pan Dulce on display at La Victoria Bakery. Photo: Courtesy of Edible Excursions
Pan Dulce on display at La Victoria Bakery. Photo: Courtesy of Edible Excursions.

Adapt or die: The best example of this approach can be found at La Victoria Bakery, an anchor institution at 24th and Alabama Streets that's sold conchas for some sixty years. Fast-talking owner Jamie Maldonado figured out that simply serving Latin pastries wasn't going to cut it in today's culinary climate. These days the cafe features a line of sweet treats from Wholesome Bakery, which turns out vegan cakes, cookies, and pies. Maldonado rents out kitchen space to Mission fixtures such as Iso Rabins of forageSF, and Danny Gabriner of Sour Flour, both of whom were at the cafe during our tour. And the cafe now hosts pop-up dinners by popular street-food chefs like Hapa SF and Soul Cocina.

mission collage
Top left: Natalie Galatzer of Bike Basket Pies. Photo: Daniel Laing. Top right: Karen Heisler and crew from Mission Pie. Photo: Anne Hamersky.
Bottom left: Mission Minis sweet treats. Photo: Serena Bartlett. Bottom right: Manny Gimenez of Mr. Pollo. Photo: Serena Bartlett.

Start Small: This category includes many relatively new arrivals to the Mission District, such as bite-sized cupcakery Mission Minis, seasonal sweet and savory pastries from Bike Basket Pies, and the in-demand arepas from Manny Torres Gimenez of Mr. Pollo.

Consider, too, Mission Pie, which began as a slip of a store serving sweet tarts and took over the space next door when it became available at the busy intersection of Mission and 25th Streets. Store co-owner Karen Heisler says that the organic way the business grew made sense in terms of their overall business plan. "We wanted to make sure the community wanted us and responded to what we do," says Heisler, who sells affordable, sustainable savory and sweet eats made from ingredients sourced locally from places like Pie Ranch, Blue House Farm, and Good Humus Farm. Heisler says she's not interested in opening Mission Pie 2 or scaling up to sell wholesale, but wants to continue to solidify loyal relationships with consumers and vendors. (Heisler talks about her favorite local places in this previous BAB post.)

Street sign for the restaurant and bakery housed in one space. Photo: Serena Bartlett.
Street sign for the restaurant and bakery housed in one space. Photo: Serena Bartlett.

Diversify: Yaron Milgrom, owner of Local: Mission Eatery envisioned a village gathering place with a food focus. His business at 24th and Folsom Streets is essentially an inexpensive sandwich-soup-salad shop by day and morphs into a high-end restaurant at night. It also acts as a cookbook lending library and offers kitchen classes several times a month. Jake Des Voignes is the chef and his partner in life Shauna Des Voignes runs Knead Patisserie in the rear of the restaurant. Shauna sets up a cart in the establishment's entryway in the morning, catching commuters on the fly who nab lemon ricotta turnovers or brioche apple rolls on their way to BART.

Who makes it in the fickle food biz in the continually evolving Mission District remains to be seen. But the economic models employed here may well be instructive--as these food folks create community around good grub.

What other innovative approaches to selling food have you come across in the Mission or elsewhere in your travels?